CBC poll: Looking beyond the stereotypes of rural Albertans and pandemic restrictions

It is too easy to exaggerate regional differences and make sweeping narratives about people based solely on where they live, says political scientist Melanee Thomas.

The majority of Albertans, regardless of where they live, are worried about COVID-19

Supporters gather during a rally against measures taken by government and health authorities to curb the spread of COVID-19 at the Whistle Stop Cafe in Mirror, Alta. Recent events make it tempting to conclude that rural Albertans are particularly resistant to public health guidelines, but the data doesn't support that narrative, says Melanee Thomas. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It is mighty tempting to look at the current state of COVID-19 in Alberta and conclude that rural Albertans are particularly resistant to public health guidelines designed to mitigate the disease. 

From the Bowden rodeos to GraceLife Church, some of the most visible displays of resistance to measures designed to protect Albertans from COVID-19 have occurred in rural areas. 

On some level, rural resistance to COVID-19 measures make sense, at least in theory. Rural areas are less densely populated than cities. That greater distance from one's neighbours could create a false sense of security, and that could extend to skepticism about masking and prohibitions on indoor gatherings. 

Provincial policy appeared to reflect this. The province refused to implement a province-wide mask mandate for months, reserving mandatory masks for more populated areas, until a spike in cases forced action last December. 

Similarly, on April 29, to be designated as a COVID-19 hotspot, a region needed a minimum of 250 cases total. Most rural municipal districts had far fewer, regardless of their infection rate per 100,000 population. 

For example, compare the current infection rates of the Municipal District of Willow Creek, where I grew up, versus the city of Calgary, where I live now. As of May 11, Willow Creek's infection rate per 100,000 people is 726.1; Calgary's is 678.4. Calgary certainly has more total infections (9272 to Willow Creek's 120), but when population is taken into account, COVID-19 is as prevalent, if not more prevalent, in Alberta's rural areas as it is in the cities. 

It is with good reason the new restrictions brought in on May 4 came into effect with population thresholds and case counts that capture rural areas. 

This raises several questions. Are rural Albertans as relaxed about COVID-19 as some might think? Are they more satisfied with the Kenney government's COVID-19 response, given that the restrictions in rural areas have been more relaxed than in the cities? 

COVID-19 stress

The recent Road Ahead poll surveyed Albertans before the latest restrictions were announced, so these data offer a good snapshot about what Albertans thought about COVID-19 when the rules were somewhat different for rural Alberta, compared to the rest of the province. 

The survey asks a key question: how stressed are participants about the COVID-19 pandemic? This is measured on a 0 to 1 scale, where 0 means someone is "not stressed at all" about COVID-19, and 1 means they are "very stressed." 

On this scale, on average, rural Albertans score about a 0.6. This compares to 0.66 for Albertans living in more populous parts of the province. This tells me that while it would be fair to say that rural folks are less stressed about the pandemic than others, it is not fair to say they're not stressed at all. The majority of Albertans, regardless of where they live, are worried about COVID-19. 

This rural-urban gap in COVID worry holds even when a number of confounding factors – including education, religiosity, ideology, vaccine hesitancy, and evaluations of Jason Kenney, Rachel Notley, and Justin Trudeau – are taken into account using regression analysis. In fact, there is no factor we included in the most recent Road Ahead survey that can explain this rural-urban gap in COVID stress. 

Before anyone uses this to jump to stereotypical conclusions about rural Albertans, I'll just note two things. First, another key factor associated with COVID-19 stress is gender. Women are more stressed out about COVID than men. This holds in the face of all the same confounding factors, including parental status. 

The difference in stress levels between rural and urban Albertans is about the same as the gap between men and women. Rural men score about 0.56 on that COVID-19 stress scale. Rural women and urban men are equally stressed (0.62) and urban women are most stressed of all (0.68).

While there is some emerging research from the United States showing that men are more likely than women to engage in conspiratorial thinking about COVID-19, I have not seen anything similar that explains rural versus urban concern about COVID. 

Given that, for me, the most plausible explanation is the one I alluded to above: in rural areas, the space and lower population density may help create a sense of security that is more difficult to develop in a more urban environment, given the importance of physical distancing to public health guidelines addressing COVID-19. 

The second thing worth noting is this: where someone lives – a rural or urban area – has nothing to do with how they feel about the provincial government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither does their level of stress about COVID-19.

If Alberta's COVID-19 policies are designed to curry favour with rural voters – a really big if, in my view – these data show that it's not working. Rural Albertans are just as (dis)satisfied with the province's pandemic response as Albertans living anywhere else in the province.

For me, these analyses confirm something I've known for some time: it is too easy to exaggerate regional differences and make sweeping narratives about people based solely on where they live. The evidence rarely supports those narratives.

The absolute majority of Albertans are worried about COVID-19, regardless of where they live.

CBC News' random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted between March 15 and April 10, 2021, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age, and gender factors. The margin of error is +/-2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online.


Melanee Thomas

Associate professor of political science

Melanee Thomas is an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. She consulted with pollster Janet Brown in the design of the CBC's 2022 Road Ahead poll and the interpretation of resulting data.